On the eve of the National Training Federation for Wales’ annual conference at the Celtic Manor Resort tomorrow (October 31), chief executive Arwyn Watkins speaks about issues dominating the thoughts of work-based learning providers.
It will come as no great surprise to readers when I report that the world of work-based learning and skills delivery in Wales is constantly changing. It’s therefore imperative that, as a network, members of the NTfW continue to move with the times and adapt to the changing economic landscape.
I believe it’s totally unsustainable for the network to continue to deliver learning programmes that are supply-driven. There has to be cultural shift to delivering programmes that are demand-led with the employer at the heart of the process. Without the employer, work-based learning cannot function.
Labour market intelligence gathered by the three Regional Learning Partnerships in Wales is going to be integral to the future learning programmes that we deliver. It’s absolutely pointless us putting in place programmes for which there is no evidence of demand.
As a network, we must continue to work much more collaboratively and effectively to secure employment and training opportunities for 16 to 24-year-old learners in Wales. It’s our duty to protect the smooth and effective transition of individuals along their learning and progression pathway across the network.
But I must emphasise that we are not the fourth emergency service. As an integral part of the education and skills system, we are very reliant on our partners in compulsory education carrying out their part of any learner’s journey, as is the case in higher education.
As a network we continue to fight for parity of esteem between vocational and academic learning routes in Wales. This has remained the Holy Grail for the Federation since it was formed. The level of success that the network has delivered has certainly contributed to the promotion of the NTfW to the higher echelons of policy and debate on education and skills. We must make it absolutely clear to policymakers that apprenticeships provide an excellent return on taxpayers’ investment and compare favourably with higher education outcomes.
Going forward, we must seek to remove bureaucracy, duplication and waste from the work-based learning arena so that public money is spent on the delivery of learning rather than on all the paperwork associated with it. I estimate that about one third of our budget is currently spent on the bureaucracy associated with delivering learning programmes.
I am going to call on the Welsh Government’s Department of Education and Skills to commission the NTfW to review the amount of bureaucracy in the system and to identify whether it’s historical or really necessary. Where it’s unnecessary, let’s remove it so that taxpayers’ hard-earned money is spent where it’s most needed – on the learners – to make work-based learning much more sustainable for everyone. We have been discussing this thorny issue for as long as the NTfW has existed but the time has now come for positive action.
The recent work-based learning tender process has been a very anxious time not only for learning providers but also for learners and employers, who need to know which programmes will be funded and who will be delivering them. We understand that the Welsh Government needs to be certain that they are getting the highest quality and best value for money in terms of the programmes delivered in Wales. But I suggest this hugely time-consuming tendering process does not offer good value for money.
Procurement officials in the Welsh Government say there is no other way to conduct the process, but there has to be a better solution and that’s the challenge for DfES in the next year. Work-based learning providers in Wales have, I believe, earned the right to be treated the same as other parts of the education and skills sector in Wales.
As I mentioned earlier, the goalposts are constantly moving on the work-based learning landscape. Next up for us are changes to the Essential Skills Wales standards which could impact on framework completion rates. Then there is the question about co-investment of apprenticeships by employers. Will Wales follow England in reforming the apprenticeship programme, whereby funding for apprentices is given to the employer rather than to the training provider? Is now the time to investigate the options available to us in Wales on securing an Apprentice Loan Scheme so that there is equality of opportunity irrespective of post 19 choices. Time will tell.
The one constant that I am certain of is that Wales has secured a high quality network of providers to deliver the ambition for skills in Wales.